This entry is the third in a series on taking parental leave as a scientific group leader.
- Could parental leave actually be good for my academic career?
- Taking parental leave: I’m glad I’m not a postdoc
Getting a job in academic science is not easy. The hours are long, the work is intense, and there is no clear relationship between amount of work and success. Jonathan and I have spent a long time describing our journeys on this blog and have welcomed insights from people in other fields as well – all painting a picture of high-pressure environments that don’t think much of failure.
When you finally jump onto that faculty ladder (no matter how tenuous your grasp on the bottom rung), you breathe a huge sigh of relief and then tuck in again for the next “judgment” milestone, where – again – failure is not particularly well tolerated.
Now, however, you find yourself in such a position where your attention gets pulled in many directions – usually some combination of teaching commitments, grant applications, university committees, broken equipment, human resource crises, etc. The really lucky people get them all coming to bear down on them in the same week. The list requires prioritizing and stuff at the bottom often gets missed.
Enter parental leave.
First thing is first – being a parent can be physically exhausting. Sleep becomes very precious and often you find yourself incapable of thinking about anything remotely complicated (especially not your science!). But, the detachment from the lab and its administrative duties gives your subconscious brain a workout, it allows you to process big questions like “why are we asking that question anyway”? (Side note – I would guess that this is what a sabbatical is meant for, but the non-tenure track research group leader career path doesn’t exactly have sabatticals… parental leave is the poor man’s sabbatical I suppose!)
Normally, the pressure to succeed prohibits this kind of blue-sky thinking. Instead of considering whether you should be asking a question, you’re already halfway through answering the question and you need to just finish the job so you don’t end up with a dreaded gap in your CV or publication record. Yes, this is what we’ve turned academic science into… bean counting.
On one hand, it was incredibly stressful to leave a newly minted laboratory and its members to their own devices for 3.5 months. On the other hand, though, the freedom from the task-to-task routine and damage control is mentally liberating and has allowed my head to roam in the clouds. I’ve written before about the importance of downtime and cited kayak trips and long walks as the source of good ideas and strategy. Well parental leave has been an even longer period of reflection on priorities and I think it’s been hugely beneficial (we’ll see what happens when I trot back into the lab next month!) from a big picture point of view.
At the end of the day I guess my real point is that we need to dedicate protected time to think about our scientific approaches. Learn to block off this time in your week or the day-to-day checking of boxes will quickly consume you. My former supervisor, an incredibly busy man, used to block off entire mornings to read Cell, Science, Nature and NEJM in order to just sit and think about his lab’s approaches and how they fit into the bigger picture – there’s a real lesson here, learn to say no and protect the time that’s important to you and your (actual) success.